June 1, 2006 (by Lieven Dewitte) - A flight in an F-16 fighter jet from the Boca Chica airfield near Key West was supposed to be a reward for an Air Force reservist. Instead, the trip turned deadly when the jet made an emergency landing so its passenger could be rushed to the hospital.
Last week, Staff Sergeant Rom Walters, 40, was granted an "incentive flight" in an F-16 fighter jet practicing maneuvers at Boca Chica airfield near Key West. One day later he died.
It's unclear what caused his death.
The Air Force routinely offers incentive flights to reward individuals within their ranks for exemplary performance. It is a privilege offered through the wing commander to a select few every year who have proven themselves as an "above and beyond" performer.
Walters joined the Air Force seven years ago and was part of the 302nd Fighter Squadron, a reserve unit with the 944th Fighter Wing based at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
A safety investigation board of Air Force officers will investigate the cause of Walters' death.
According to Lt. Col. David Thoreson, spokesman for the 944th Fighter Wing, all reservists get annual physicals, and an Air Force flight doctor conducts pre-flight screenings before the incentive flights. Basic emergency procedures also are reviewed.
Thoreson would not confirm initial reports that Walters was unconscious when the fighter jet landed.
The Navy also offers what it calls "familiarization flights" to Navy personnel and members of the media, said Cmdr. Jack Hanzlik, spokesman for Naval Air Forces. Before flying in an F/A-18 fighter jet, passengers must practice wearing an oxygen mask with pressurized oxygen which they would wear in flight at high altitudes. Passengers also must show that they can swim and tread water in flight gear.
The 944th Fighter Wing arrived for training in Key West on May 17 and will remain through the end of the week.